We Hold the Rheostat of God-Light

A sermon based on Psalm 13
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on June 28, 2020
by Rev. Scott Elliott

The scripture I an using to frame this sermon is the Lectionary Psalm for today. Psalm 13 is short. It starts with a lament over not sensing God’s presence in the midst of deep sorrow. The Psalmist prays for help, that God “give light to [his] eyes.” We do not know what caused the lament but we know by the end of the Psalm that the light of God’s steadfast love has been experienced giving cause for rejoicing.
Last Sunday we looked at the Old Testament lectionary reading on Abraham and Isaac that was scheduled for today. I used it last week so I could apply it to Father’s Day. A big part of that sermon was understanding the context Abraham lived in. Where among other things religions with polytheistic gods had traditions of claiming deities desired and needed child sacrifices– and how the one God, Yahweh, and Abraham stopped that tradition. It’s a topic I’ve preached and taught before and every time I do I am reminded how very different Bible times were. Psalm 13’s lament brings that to mind as well. There were so many things that could have caused the Psalmist to lament, child sacrifice and polytheism are just the tip of the iceberg.

In those times– not just in Genesis, but much of the rest of the Bible– things seem quite strange from our perspective. Back then genocide was an accepted practice in conquering and war. Slavery was also an accepted practice. Women and children were treated as property. People with aliments, disease and deformities were shunned and cast aside. Other religions and tribes were despised and hated. The justice system had no criminal due process as we know it. Laws seemed arbitrary and nonsensical. Tyranny, royal linage and victorious battles chose leaders, not democracy, not the people. Killing, plundering, sexual assault, robbery, violence, famine, drought, plagues, child deaths and death at childbirth and death from what we’d call minor illness, were all scarily common place. There was no sense of science or medicine as we know them. Magic and superstition were turned to for answers. Almost everyone was illiterate and in extreme poverty. The landscape was parched, hot and dusty. Nomads and settled farming tribes vied for access to land, vegetation and water. There was constant war and fighting.

While to a degree we still have many of the things I just mentioned, they are mostly on a much lesser scale, to the extent they are not our norms, many of those things are unacceptable and illegal. Many of those things that have echoes still, we protest and push people in power to further diminish and end the echoes so there is justice for all. That was not the case way back then in the B.C. era and earlier A.D. times. They were not echoes but huge thundering happenings for almost everyone and people in power summarily killed those who opposed them, like Jesus.

The times back then were so different my Old Testament professor told us if we could somehow travel in time to the Ancient Near East we would feel like we’d traveled instead to another world. Those times were not just different but very, very difficult for the vast majority of people. The Psalmist was not alone in suffering and lamenting and wondering where God was in it all.

The New Testament times were similar to Old Testament times and just as difficult for the same reasons except child sacrifice was outlawed and no longer a religious norm, and more people were settled in urban or urban-like areas. Rome for all its cruelties added more sophisticated infrastructure to the geography, with new building techniques for water ducts, roadways, ports and buildings. But those enhancements and the troops sent to build them and occupy the land were costly and required burdensome taxation on top of what the local powers already squeezed from the impoverished inhabitants. And Rome’s troops were there to assert the overwhelming power of its legions to not just stave off outside attacks but to enforce though barbaric criminal punishment any challenge to Rome– the legions leveled cities and leveled people at the slightest provocation. The famous Peace of Rome, called “Pax Romana” was based on this relentless violent intimidation, cruelties, and execution. So the New Testament world to us would seem much like another world too.

In those Biblical times of much greater difficulties the founders of both Judaism and Christianity became aware of the promise and existence of a better way to be. They named the source of that promise and creator of the way, Yahweh, Lord, God. The author of Psalm 13 was aware of that source and called out to God to shine light in his darkness. In those very dark times those religions could point to a light, and it turns out could aid in making the light brighter.

The light of course was God and they found that the God-light could be brightened in the dark by human actions. Remarkably it was discovered that God could and would act through people. The ability to decide to act for God turned out to be a rheostat of sorts in human hands for the God-light. The more humanity turned up their Holy acts the more the God-light shined. That is what Jesus meant when he told his followers back then that they were the Light of the world. In the darkness of poverty, starvation, illness, imprisonment, oppression and war; in the pitch black of disaster and disease and violence, God’s light not only shines, but can be aided to shine brighter.

The rheostat of God-light turns from God shining without human action to aid in well being; to God shining MORE with human action to aid in even MORE more well being. The loving ways taught in the Bible are meant to turn that rheostat by getting as many humans as possible to act toward the well being of all. The rheostat of God-light cranked to it’s highest power is Shalom– which a New Testament nativity story rightly calls “Peace on earth good will to ALL!”

It is no accident that that proclamation was made in the bright light of the heavenly host joining a lone angel who was speaking to terrified outcast shepherds in the dark of the night the day that Jesus was born. The angel was assuring them the glory– the light of the Lord– that came with it was bringing good news of great joy. The heavenly host can be heard to respond with a standing ovation and booming Woo-Hoo! Praising God and wishing, as well as pronouncing, the end game, the desired results, which is shalom, the well being of all.

Here’s that short but powerful section from Luke:

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward [all].”

For a few years now we have summarized the heavenly host’s promise with three words in bright lights on one of the highest points in the city, atop our church tower. The promise “Peace on Earth” blazes there all year long in every dark night. I love that is has become a nightlife landmark in the area. The promise, the purpose of Christ’s coming and our following Christ, the end game of the Bible, GOD’S HOPE is proclaimed at the highest part of the church, and one of the highest parts of the area. It is there as a reminder and beckoning of that divine call and promise for sure, but it should also serve as both a command and statement of the possible. “Peace on Earth” is not a heavenly pipe dream, it is our marching orders and where we are marching to. It is not a fantasy land, but a reality very different from the world in the Bible and the world we occupy now. It is a world full of God-light where the heavenly host shouts out Woo-hoos for humanity accomplishing the well being of everyone, peace on earth good will to all.

This is the second Sunday in June that I have brought up Christmas, a couple of weeks ago it was to remind us that most of humanity is acting for the well being of others, like we do in Advent season. We are doing that in the darkness of this season of the triple whammy of covid19 health concerns, an economic crisis and the violent evil of racism.

The text a couple of weeks ago was Jesus’ instruction to strive first for the Empire of God and we will ALL be fed and clothed. My point in that sermon was that we see the Empire of God breaking in when we care for others more, like much of humanity does at at Christmas and is doing right now in these crises. When we focus on God and God’s call to act for the well being of others heaven breaks in more and more. We can be the instrument that, to track our lesson, gives light to the eyes of those seeking God’s presence. In the bad news of the covid pandemic and racist violence. the good news is people are instruments of shining God- light, by acting for the well being others, our neighbors known and unknown far and wide. That good news comes at a time when the world seems so alien. These are not Biblical times, but they are times very different than they were five months ago.

And I bring up the nativity story of the proclamation by the Angel of the Lord and the Heavenly Host because like the shepherds we are in a dark place and it can feel terrifying and we cannot be reminded enough to remember that Christ’s arrival on earth came with the glory of the Lord shining — with good tidings and great joy which did not just glorify God but promised peace on earth good will to all. That promise coincides with lessons in the whole arc of our sacred scriptures.

Like I said at the start of this sermon, in Biblical times of much greater difficulties the founders of both Judaism and Christianity became aware of the promise and existence of a better way to be. We can and we should be aware of that too. In those very dark times those religions generated light because they got and they taught that God could and would act through humanity.

Like I said two weeks ago we do this in the holidays and we are doing this now. But we can do more. In the darkness of poverty, starvation, illness, imprisonment, oppression and war, in the pitch black of disaster and disease and violence there is not just the lesson and good news that God’s light shines, but the good news that we can make it shine brighter.

We can act and turn up the rheostat of God-light from God shining without human action to aid in well being; to God shining with human action to aid in even more well being. The loving ways taught in the Bible are meant to get as many humans as possible to do just that. The rheostat of God-light cranked to it’s highest power is Shalom– which is “Peace on earth!”

Human behavior in the current crisis by and large has been encouraging. It has turned the rheostat through many human acts, from health care folks working the front lines, to community leaders guiding us to safe conduct, to everyday folks following that guidance; to protesting racism non-violently and to those leaders and law enforcement who have worked non-violently to safeguard the protesters and work toward ending racism. That’s brought in a lot more God light into the darkness.

But we need to keep on acting on God’s behalf, the Coronavirus pandemic is not over. We need to keep acting on God’s behalf, the economic recession and fall out is not over. We need to keep acting on God’s behalf, sadly racism still exists and we must overcome it. And there are still too the everyday troubles, poverty, hunger, illness and other isms that need to be overcome. So we need to do what we have been doing and if possible do more. God’s got no one but us humans to move the dial to turn the rheostat up and do the work. As the 16th century saint

Teresa of Avila put it:

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth, yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.”

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it in all of our life times :

“Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness. God has no one but us. St. Augustine of Hippo has said, ‘God without us will not as we without God cannot’ 1”

We have heard those quotes before. We have heard before that we are the light of world. We have heard before that we are to be the hands and feet and voice of God. If we listen to what we have heard and make Peace on earth our marching orders we will continue to help God-light shine in these our own difficult and different times. Let us all continue to do just that.